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DANGER: TRACTOR-TRAILER
ERIE COUNTY CRASH INJURIES ARE STATE'S HIGHEST, DESPITE SAFER TRUCKS, DRIVERS

More truck crashes occur in Erie County, injuring more people, than in any other county in New York, federal data shows.

The human toll nearly doubled in just four years. Crashes sent 182 people to hospitals for medical care in 2002 compared with 101 in 1998. That's in addition to seven fatalities.

And it could have been worse.

Western New York and Ontario companies hauling goods through the region are putting safer trucks and drivers on the road than they did in the late 1990s, a Buffalo News analysis of thousands of inspections shows.

Drivers of cars are usually responsible for putting themselves in the path of a tractor-trailer, by driving too fast, drifting out of their lane or failing to yield, police investigations show.

The results can be devastating.

When Kevin S. O'Malley steered a Mazda pickup across the center line in April 2003 on Route 20 in the Town of Hamburg, he collided head-on with a tractor-trailer. The impact obliterated the front end of the pickup, killing O'Malley, 46, and passenger Gary M. Hite, 44.

"There's no undoing death," said Ronald Hite of Fredonia, Gary's father. "You realize the finality of it. He never had a chance to see his grandson."

Now, Hite's family can only wonder why the vehicle drifted into the oncoming lane, unsure if fatigue, the glare of sunlight or reaching for the radio led to the fatal mistake.

The sharp increase in Erie County injuries comes as injuries across the rest of the state dropped 25 percent.

That means Erie County, for the first time in at least a decade, surpasses each of Long Island's two counties and the boroughs of New York City for injuries in crashes involving large trucks.

"They have a lot of delivery vehicles bringing goods in, but they don't have the industrialized areas like we do, the big plants," said Trooper Robert J. Vishion, who works out of the State Police barracks in Clarence and inspects trucks full time.

Growing trade a factor

What's more, growing trade between Ontario and the United States sends more trucks across the border. Trucks cross the border more than two million times a year, either at the Peace Bridge or the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, with 128,000 more trips in 2002 than in 1998.

The high number of trucks traveling through the region explains why there are more crashes, Vishion said. Most crashes happen in daylight and in clear weather. But snowstorms can make for dangerous driving conditions that lead to even more crashes, and it's no surprise that December, February and March are the months with the most crashes.

The 259 large trucks involved in crashes in Erie County in 2002 outnumber those crashing in Westchester County, which ranked second with 179. It's the largest number of trucks involved in crashes in any county in the state since at least 1997. Only Nassau County came close, with 258 in 2000.

What's more, the 182 truck crash injuries in Erie County in 2002 were the highest of any county going back to at least 1998, federal data shows.

State Police say they remain focused on finding trucks with improperly secured loads, because they remember the steel coils that have rolled off flatbed trucks in past years.

In Ontario, errant truck parts have emerged as a worry, and Buffalo should be just as alert to that problem, said Sgt. Cam Woolley of the Ontario Provincial Police, who's been assigned to the agency's commercial vehicle unit since 1979.

"Buffalo and Toronto are pretty closely tied," Woolley said. "Your trucks are coming our way, and our trucks are heading your way. We have a lot of the same traffic.

"Because of increased traffic, there are more chances of errant parts striking vehicles," Woolley said. "It's just math."

Debris killed driver

Police are still searching for a truck and its driver involved in a fatal incident in May on Highway 401 in Toronto. A piece of equipment flew off an eastbound truck, bounced over a divider and smashed through the windshield of a westbound Volkswagen Jetta. The 59-year-old Mississauga man driving the car did not have time to swerve to avoid the metal, Woolley said.

The metal piece struck the driver's head and shattered the sunroof as it flew out the top of the car.

The truck driver continued driving, probably because he didn't realize what happened, Woolley said.

"The safety record of the trucking industry in Ontario is enviable," David Bradley, the Ontario Trucking Association's president, said after the deadly incident. "But tragedies such as these remind us that no matter how good we are and no matter how good a job the vast majority of people in the trucking industry do, we must continually strive for further improvement."

Indeed, Ontario trucking companies, as a group, show good inspection results, according to a News review of thousands of truck inspections for 80 Ontario companies.

Inspectors checked the Ontario trucks 10,973 times from October 2001 to April 2004. The inspectors ordered about one in every 10 trucks out of service because of a violation, according to the inspection reports. That's better than twice as good as the U.S. average.

The same 80 companies showed an 11 percent out-of-service rate in 3,823 inspections from October 1997 to October 1999. Only three of the 80 companies posted an out-of-service rate higher than the national average. Ten companies had spotless truck inspections.

Local truck inspections

The News also reviewed thousands of inspections for trucks owned by 40 Buffalo area companies. The inspections showed vast improvement.

Police and inspectors checked the Buffalo area trucks 3,301 times from October 2001 to April 2004, and they ordered 10 percent of them out of service because of one or more violations.

The same 40 companies showed a 17 percent failure rate -- 335 ordered out of service in 1,989 inspections -- between 1997 and 1999.

In the most recent inspections, seven of the 40 Buffalo area companies exceeded the national average for trucks ordered out of service. Fourteen exceeded the national average in the late 1990s.

In Western New York, State Police have doubled the number of troopers inspecting trucks since 2002, and as enforcement was stepped up, more companies emphasized their own safety programs.

"I think companies are becoming more aware and paying attention to safety and maintenance programs," said Kendra Pollard, deputy director of the New York State Motor Truck Association.

Sometimes the improvement follows a tragedy.

A Huber & Huber truck that crashed into a Metro Bus in 1999 near Buffalo Niagara International Airport, killing the bus driver, had safety violations that, if detected ahead of time, would have prompted officials to order it off the road.

And the Alden trucking company's other trucks were cited for safety violations, too.

State records showed that inspectors cited Huber & Huber for 107 violations in 30 truck inspections from 1997 to 1999, with 34 of the violations serious enough for them to order a truck out of service in 16 of the inspections.

But in 29 inspections over the past two years, only two of Huber & Huber's tractor-trailers that haul sand and gravel were ordered off the road for violations.

Officials from the company, which still faces a lawsuit from the 1999 crash, declined to comment.

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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